Anthony Symondson SJ on a book that describes a shameful history of ecclesiastical vandalism
The Pugins and the Catholic Midlands by Roderick O'Donnell. Gracewing £7.99
since the exhibition, "Pugin: A Gothic Passion", mounted at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1994, Pugin studies and a cult of the architect have turned into an industry. From being known only to a small body of scholars, enthusiasts for the Gothic Revival, and the ecclesiastically-minded he now occupies the position of being perhaps the most famous Victorian architect, with a vigorous Society devoted to his cause.
This is well deserved, because the progress of the mature Gothic Revival is entirely dependent upon Pugin's rediscovery of the structural logic of Gothic and his experiments in "medieval manufactures". The danger is to see early and later developments hidden beneath his shadow, and reduce the ripening of Pugin's principles to repetition rather than an evolution that eventually surpassed his own achievement.
Little of Pugin's work would have been accomplished without the patronage of Lord Shrewsbury, Ambrose Phillipps, Bishop Walsh, Vicar Apostolic of the new Central District, and the workmanship of John Hardman. There is no region more fertile as a seedbed of Pugin's experiments than Birmingham and the Catholic Midlands. Indeed, both have been brought to life in the recent work of Michael Fisher which brilliantly records the scenes of this excitement.
Roderick O'Donnell pursues a more austere path that charts Pugin's development and establishes illuminating connections which illustrate how so much became possible. Pugin had nothing of the convert's diffidence. He was soon dubbed "Archbishop Pugens" by his enemies for his confident insistence upon liturgical correctness and planning, and that meant revived medievalism.
He wanted an "English" Catholicism and spoke of "our ancestors ... not Roman Catholics [but] English Catholics"and thereby in his work achieved something quite new. This pleased neither the "old Catholics" nor the later converts but perhaps anticipated the ideals of Cardinal Hume. In Pugin's relations with his patrons he emerges as unattractively ambitious and obsessively over-assertive. Yet without these faults and his single-minded application
he would have achieved nothing. O'Donnell clearly sets out the evolution of Pugin's career, its rise and fall, and provides a necessary, if sometimes summary. gazetteer of his achievement. This develops the themes, provides a comprehensive list of all Pugin's traceable work in the Midlands and that of his sons, E W and Peter Paul Pugin.
It will provide a valuable companion for all who wish to seek it out. Many tantalising references to Pugin's patrons and the context of his work make one hungry for more. And the shameful record of destruction initiated by Archbishop Dwyer in St Chad's Cathedral in 1967-8 and its consequences throughout the archdiocese is set out with painful thoroughness. It represents the worst record of latter-day iconoclasm in the country.
O'Donnell presents Pugin in microcosm and demonstrates how he emancipated the word "Brummagem" from an association with the cheap and showy. Is it too much to hope that it will lead to the reinstatement of so much that has pointlessly been destroyed?
For details of the Pugin Society write to the Membership Secretary, 33 Montcalm House, Westferry Road, London, El 4 3SD.